MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --
Maybe you’ve seen some of the new posters going up around the base. They say things like “71% of airmen age 18 to 24 consume four or fewer drinks or no drinks with alcohol at parties or bars.” The same poster says “60% consume three or less.”
I almost want to call “BS.” There’s no way, just from what I’ve seen in my own social groups, that the vast majority of people only have four.
These posters are about “Social Norms,” but what does “normal” mean, anyway?
In response, people – myself included – seeing these posters on many different bases have said things like: “they’re at it again, it seems: the next in what feels like a long line of ‘anti-alcohol’ Air Force initiatives,” or “‘0-0-1-3’ wasn’t enough, I guess,” or “I suppose having everyone on edge and fostering a ‘one-mistake Air Force’ attitude didn’t hit the mark either.”
This one probably carries the most weight: “We all know most people lie on their PHAs to avoid repercussions from ADAPT.”
I’m probably one of the first people to analyze, fact-check and point out fallacies in an argument or survey. I’m skeptical about research, and have a thousand questions about its validity – especially when it comes to alcohol use in the Air Force. So believe me, these posters spark all kinds of doubt and skepticism in me too.
But I’ve also been through ADAPT after getting a DUI, and am currently on the Alcohol-Related Misconduct working group – there’s irony for you – and I’ve seen a different side of Big Blue’s approach to alcohol because of it.
Let’s take 0-0-1-3, for example.
“In my opinion, that’s the safest way to approach drinking and avoid ARMs,” said Capt. Caleb Shepard, the base’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment program manager. “The higher above that number, the more at risk you are.”
He’s not drawing a line and saying “don’t cross this.” But of all the ARMs he’s seen during his tenure as the ADAPT program manager, a big chunk of them are because people were trying to be responsible, and broke that limit.
“For those that do have a higher tolerance, they just don’t realize how much they drink and they’ll go to sleep for a while, then go drive and get a DUI,” Shepard said.
Whatever your personal practices or feelings toward “0-0-1-3,” it’s the recommended drinking plan for a reason.
I can personally speak to this. High tolerance? Check. Went to bed feeling sober? Yep. Got up and drove because I felt fine? Got it.
DUI? Got that too.
But what about these “Social Norms” posters? For starters, the information didn’t come from PHAs. It came from anonymous surveys on personal – not government – computers and was conducted by a liberal arts college out of Geneva, New York. And while it’s possible a bulk of the people lied, we can’t live life assuming every new piece of information is false because we’re skeptical of it – unless, of course, the evidence demonstrates that.
“If we make that argument, we have to throw out all the research that’s ever been done in psychology,” Shepard said. “The majority of psychological research is based on voluntary participation.”
Nowhere on these posters will you see “you should only drink four because your friends do.” They’re just giving us the best information available; even if it conflicts with the 0-0-1-3 Air Force-approved suggested drinking amount.
The problem is, as human beings, we tend to polarize our response to information.
When it comes to alcohol, I can see how it looks like the Air Force is trying to demonize using it and punish those who do.
“I think because of the issues and the money spent because of inappropriate alcohol use, the Air Force has been doing what it can to reduce it,” Shepard said. "Certainly I can imagine from a young airman's view point that it can feel pretty excessive."
It gets reinforced by comments on social media sites advocating for ARM offenders to be “severely punished and then kicked out.”
I don’t find this mentality productive or even fair.
To be honest, at least at Mountain Home AFB, neither do a lot of people in positions to change that.
“We’re trying to use more of the carrot over the stick,” Shepard said. “We’re not trying to punish people and make them feel guilty for their drinking behavior. Unfortunately, I think that’s the way it kind of has been in the past.”
Shepard said this, and future programs, are meant to let airmen make informed decisions – ones that can save their careers, and in some cases, their lives.
That’s what these posters are about. That’s what ADAPT and the ARM working group is doing here. The way forward is a carrot, not a stick. The way forward is about trying to promote the well-being of our airmen, not just reduce ARMs to make our base look better.
What does all this have to do with skepticism? Here’s my final thought on the matter: let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that every bit of data on these posters is wrong. Maybe the survey truly is flawed and the results paint a happy, “sunshine and unicorns” picture that isn’t entirely true. Maybe every person who took it lied.
So what? It doesn’t change the intent of the program.
They’re trying a new approach using the best information available.
The point of those posters is to give us information and let us make choices. It’s not about telling you what to do or how to do it, but instead saying “look, here’s what people are telling us they do. Here’s what we know about statistics when it comes to ARMs. Here’s the best advice we can give you to avoid them.”
That’s it. There’ll still be punishments for ARMs and DUIs; we’re supposed to be held accountable for our actions. But maybe the way to prevent those circumstances is to stop trying to draw lines and appear to demonize alcohol. Maybe the best approach is to accept that people will drink if they want and how they want; some will drink three, some will drink more than four. Instead, help us understand alcohol, how it works, how it affects us physically and mentally, and what is “normal” for most airmen, contrary to what we may or may not believe.
Being skeptical is a good thing; it helps us weed out inaccurate information to better change society. It helps us evolve and grow into better people. It’s what drives innovation and revolution.
But, there’s a fine line between skepticism and cynicism. I guess the question is: which side do you fall on? Do you want more stick or more carrot?
After my DUI, losing two stripes, mountains of debt and a high-year of tenure battle, I’m tired of the stick. It didn’t keep me from getting a DUI, despite my best planning.
I want to try the carrot.